One thousand years at St Stephen’s church.

Before the Norman Conquest

Let’s start this story with a party.  It’s about 1000 years ago, the ale and mead are flowing, someone has baked some bread, hopefully without too much grit and dust in it.  They are celebrating the building of St Stephen’s in stone.  Stone gives messages.  It shows a certain amount of wealth, and it lasts, so there is some firm belief that Christianity, the city of Exeter and this little community around the church is going to be with us for some time.  We don’t know if it replaced a wooden church or not.  It’s quite possible – Christianity has been around, as has Exeter for several hundred years.  There was a flourishing church school attached to a monastery in the city in 680 which St Boniface attended.

It’s a much smaller rectangular space than the present building but the East end wall is in the same place as it is now.  The building was divided into a square chancel, where the priest would lead worship, and a nave about twice the length.  Underneath the chancel was a crypt.  This had a vaulted ceiling resting on columns about 150 cm (5 ft) apart. Crypts are usually associated with much bigger churches or cathedrals.  The only other church in Devon with a Saxon crypt is at St Giles, Sidbury, and indeed there are only six churches with Saxon crypts in the whole country.

Crypts were usually used to place relics, so as St Stephens was built with one, it must be presumed that either relics were available or promised.  It is known that King Athelstan in the early tenth century was a great collector of saintly relics and gave many to the minster which he re-founded and which eventually became Exeter cathedral.  Exeter became an important centre of relics and pilgrimage to visit them.  Perhaps some of these were given to St Stephens.

But crypts were not necessarily entirely underground.  This one almost certainly extended about sixty cms (two feet) above the nave floor.  There would have been a stair down to the crypt and up to the chancel.  Whose relics were here we just do not know.  At that time churches were owned by their builders, and built for the people working on his estate.  Parishes were created later in the thirteenth century.

1066 and all that

1066 brings the conquest of England by William Duke of Normandy.  In 1068 his Domesday Book records:

‘The Bishop has a church in Exeter which pays yearly 1 mark of silver also forty eight houses.  Of these houses ten pay ten shillings and ten pence by way of customary dues and two have been destroyed by fire.  Also he has two and a half acres of land which is intermixed with the land of the burgesses and belongs to the church.’

It has often been suggested that this is St Stephen’s church, mainly because the properties mentioned become known as St Stephen’s Fee.  More recent opinion is that St Stephen’s is actually another unnamed church in Exeter which the Domesday Book records as belonging in 1066 to King Edward the Confessor and subsequently being given by King William to his favoured half-brother, Robert the count of Mortain.  In 1106 King Henry l seized the count’s lands and it is he who gives the church to Exeter’s Bishop, William Warrelwast.  The Bishop now holds St Stephen’s as well as these properties, and it seems that St Stephen’s took over as the centre for managing these properties (from St Mary Major, the church adjacent to the cathedral, demolished in 1972).  By 1289 a manorial court which was called the ‘court of St Stephen’ was held every three weeks to administer these properties and it is likely this is one of the reasons for increasing the size of St Stephen’s church.

Bishop Warrelwast was also responsible for starting the rebuilding of the Cathedral creating the two towers that we still see today (although he died before they were finished).    (Prior to 1050 when the Diocese moves the location of the Bishop from Crediton to Exeter, the cathedral was a minster, and probably underwent some major alterations after the Norman conquest to reflect its new status.) It is likely that it was Warrelwast who rebuilt and enlarged the crypt at St Stephens,and put in the pillars that were revealed when the church was redeveloped.  It’s his church, close to his cathedral and he wants to embellish it.  Our archaeologist considered that these pillars are just too good a quality for a local church suggesting Warrelwast simply recycled quality early Norman pillars from the cathedral.  He left the original Saxon east wall standing, and rebuilt the crypt, leaving the rest of the church intact.

Top of Crypt pillar as uncovered

It is possible that Warrelwast also widened the church, although this cannot be proved.  However early in the fourteenth century there was a major rebuilding above ground.  A new chancel was created by building out over the lane outside the church, forming St Stephen’s Bow.  The arch that you now see inside the church dates from that time too.  So we have a long thin church with three levels: the original nave, going up to the original chancel, which is now also becoming part of the nave, and up again up to the new chancel in the Bow.  Perhaps the numbers of ordinary people coming into the new nave which they would have been excluded from when it was the chancel, led to the need for a new set of stairs at the east end down into the crypt.  When the church was being rebuilt we found evidence of the original medieval south wall which was of fourteenth century origin.


The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

In the fifteenth century the church was extended again, by adding the tower and certainly widened by then if not before.  The church was widened by adding aisles – and it is possible that the top of the crypt was taken off and the church given one level throughout the nave with just one set of stairs up to the Bow at that time.  Crypts were no longer fashionable in the fifteenth century, and St Stephen’s would be moving with the times.

At some time after that a side chapel was added, most likely a chantry chapel, for a priest to say Mass for someone’s soul. This was subsequently extended all along the south side to give the floor shape the church has today.  We are not sure when that final extension happened, but it was quite possibly during the sixteenth century perhaps during Queen Elizabeth’s reign and relative prosperity or possibly as late as King James.

Now that we have arrived at the sixteenth century, it is time to look in more detail at events that affected St Stephen’s during the period between Reformation and Restoration.

St Stephens during the Reformation

We know little about life in St Stephen’s during the reign of Henry VIII.  Nevertheless his decision in 1534 to declare the English church was no longer subject to the authority of the Pope and to place himself as English monarch at the head of the English church, and take over much of the church’s property  must have been a talking point to say the very least!  It is likely that there was little opposition. To support the king was a subject’s Christian duty, and initially at any rate there would have been little difference as far as a church service was concerned.  The Reformation may have started, but church services were still catholic services, in Latin, as were most of the prayers.  However the Lord’s Prayer was now in English and in 1537 an English Bible was authorised for use in Parish Churches.  No doubt St Stephen’s had one.   Henry’s actions had however enabled Protestant views to gain a foothold at court, and on Henry’s death and the accession of Edward VI, only nine year’s old, the Protestant reformers seized their chance.

During Edward’s brief reign the Reformation gathered speed with emphasis on Protestant theology.  A single Prayer Book was introduced in 1549 by the Act of Uniformity so that the whole church followed the same pattern of ritual and in English rather than Latin.  This did not go down well with everyone. In Sampford Courtney the parishioners told their priest to put on his vestments and say Mass.  This movement spread  and made links with a similar uprising in Cornwall.  Exeter closed its gates to the rebels, who effectively besieged the city for six weeks, causing great hardship for its citizens.  Eventually the city was relieved by a Royal army which also employed foreign mercenaries.   The rebellion was put down with much brutality. And St Stephen’s was affected– not at the hands of the rebels but from the King’s soldiers:

 ‘A chalice weighing by estimation fifteen ounces was taken from the Clark of the said parish (St Stephen’s) in the commotion time after the entering of the King’s majesty’s army in the west part, by a Welshman who came into the church and robbed the said Clark in the same church at the same time.’[i]

The term Welshman could to refer to any foreigner, and the army relieving Exeter is known to have included foreign (European) mercenaries.

Worse was to follow.  The king needed money.  National finances seemed to be as bad then as they are now.  As early as 1547 the King (and his advisers) had been making enquires about the extent of church silver, realising this was a potential to tap.

On March 3 1551 it was ordered by the Privy Council ‘That for as much as the King’s Majesty had need presently of a mass of money, therefore Commissions should be addressed into all shires of England to take into the King’s hands such church plate as remains, to be employed unto his highness’s use.’ [ii]

This was not put into effect immediately but was made to bite in 1552, when the new Bishop of Exeter, Miles Coverdale, famous for his translation of the Bible into English, was instructed to set about the task.

But others had cast their eyes towards Church silver.  Exeter was in the business of developing itself as a port, now that navigation of the Exe was once again possible following the possession of the weir at Countess Wear, and the development of a canal.  This has to be funded too, and the Mayor, no doubt well aware of royal intentions, decided to undertake a pre-emptive strike.  Eight of the city churches were invited to ‘loan’ some of their plate to the city, and in this way the sum of £228 12s 4d was raised.[iii]

Exeter city records[iv] state: Dec. 15, 1551, it is agreed “that whereas the wardens with the assent of the parishes of St. George, St. Mary Arches, St. Mary the More, St. Stephen’s, St. Pancras, St. Tole’s (St Olave)[v]and St. Keryan’s have given to the use of the bringing up of the River of Exe, such parcel of plate as particularly appears by the indent’s thereof, made between the city and them, amounting in the whole the sum of 741 3/4 ozs., which plate we fully agree and by this presents do clearly  bargain and sell unto John Bodlegh after the rate of 5s 2d. the ounce, which amounts to the sum of £191. 12 s. 4 1/2d.’ 

The sums are not the same as St Petrock’s contribution was recorded separately.

The St Stephen’s contribution[vi] is recorded as:

A pax and pix of silver weighing 16 ounces       A pix is a container for consecrated bread used to carry  it around eg when taking communion to the sick.

A pix of silver and other broken silver weighing 11½ ounces

At 5s 2d per ounce this comes to £7 2s 1d., which is well less than a one to one proportionate basis between the churches.   It may seem that St Stephen’s was being stingy, but, as is shown from the inventory later, this left St Stephen’s with only one chalice and no other silver.  St Stephen’s actually gave almost all it had. We can only wonder at the debates that might have gone on within the parish, and the role the rector, Humphrey Bear played.  Cresswell comments[vii] ‘Churches were treasure houses wherein the parishioners had laid up a store of precious metals and costly draperies, not merely for ceremonial purposes, but representing local funds ready for local emergencies.’  The fact that St Stephens gave so much of what silver it had to the city for community development, may be an indication  that it had a strong presence of merchants within its congregation (something further attested by the burial ledgers).

So, we’ve had a chalice stolen, all the rest of the silver save one chalice has been ‘loaned’ to the city, so what was left?

The inventory lists the following to be appropriated by the King’s Commissioners:

A suit of red silk with the appurtenances

A vestment of white damask

A vestment of white and green

An old green vestment 

An old dormy

One of orange tawny bridge satin

five fronts of bridge satin, yellow and green

an old vestment of yellow silk

four corporal cases with two kerchiefs

a front of black and yellow velvet

two curtains of silk, two of buckram and two of saye

two towels of linen

ten albs and five amices

four other old vestments

However the Commissioners did leave some items with the church.  These were:

A chalice parcel gilt weighing fifteen ounces

nine table clothes

two surplices

a fair pall of black velvet with flowers of gold for the dead corpse. [viii]

The Inventory also noted that St Stephen’s possessed three bells, of which two were to be appropriated, weighing three and four hundredweight respectively.  However it seems that no bells or lead were ever taken from the city churches.

Edward VI died in 1553, and after a brief but unsuccessful attempt to install Lady Jane Grey as Queen by some of the protestant nobility, Henry VIII’s elder daughter, Mary, became queen.  She was staunchly Catholic, and immediately reversed the changes made by Edward VI.  The most important protestant clergy such as Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were arrested but many others were permitted to flee, including the Bishop of Exeter, Miles Coverdale.  In October 1553 the mass was reinstated and priests who had married were required either to renounce their wives or their vocation.  In Devon some 10% of all clergy resigned their posts.

In the reign of Queen Mary

At St Stephen’s, the rector Humphrey Bear may well have had little difficulty in reverting back to the catholic forms of worship.  It was after all only four years since the English Prayer Book was introduced.  After his death in 1554 he was replaced by Johannes Flemming[ix], who was already Rector of Ashton.  He was instituted on June 16 1554 and stayed with us until April 9 1556[x].  Ironically Bishop Veysey, now in his nineties, was restored to being Bishop of Exeter following Mary’s accession, and although he was often absent from his Diocese, it was under his jurisdiction that both Humphrey Bear and Johannes Flemming were appointed. Bishop Veysey was succeeded in 1555 by James Turbeville, a clear supporter of Mary’s beliefs.

Mary has gone down in history as ‘Bloody Mary’ because of the execution by burning of some 300 people, men and women as heretics.  Most of these executions took place in the South East, thanks to the enthusiasm of the Bishop of London, John Bonner.  There was only one burning west of Salisbury, and that was in Exeter, of Agnes Prest.  She was burnt close to Southernhay in 1557 for refusing to believe in the transubstantiation of wine and bread into the actual body and blood of Christ, (‘refusing to worship a piece of bread as God’).  There is a memorial to her on the corner of Barnfield Road and Denmark Road.

Queen Elizabeth brings  more changes

On Mary’s death without an heir in 1558, Elizabeth became Queen and the country was firmly set back into Protestantism.  The religious Acts of Mary were repealed, and all ministers required to affirm on oath that ‘the queen’s highness is the only supreme governor of this realm, and of all other her highness’s dominions and countries, as well in all spiritual or ecclesiastical things, as temporal …’[xi] Bishop Turbeville would not swear the required oaths, and so was deprived of his bishopric, and so in 1560 William Alley became bishop of Exeter.  Edward VI’s Prayer Book was reinstated with some amendments, services were back in English, and in the Act of Uniformity (1559) stringent penalties were laid down for any minister who departed from the norm:

‘And that if any manner of parson, vicar, or other whatsoever minister, that ought or should sing or say common prayer, or minister the sacraments,  … refuse to use the said common prayers, or to minister the sacraments … in such order and form as they be mentioned and set forth in the said book, or shall wilfully or obstinately … use any other rite, ceremony, order, form, or manner of celebrating of the Lord’s Supper, openly or privily, or Matins, Evensong, administration of the sacraments, or other open prayers, than is mentioned and set forth in the said book …, or shall preach, declare, or speak anything in the derogation or depraving of the said book, or anything therein contained, or of any part thereof, and shall be thereof lawfully convicted, according to the laws of this realm, by verdict of twelve men, or by his own confession, or by the notorious evidence of the fact, shall lose and forfeit to the queen’s highness, her heirs and successors, for his first offence, the profit of all his spiritual benefices or promotions coming or arising in one whole year next after his conviction; and also that the person so convicted shall for the same offence suffer imprisonment by the space of six months, without bail.’[xii]

However Elizabeth did not go so far as to abolish the traditional hierarchy of archbishops and bishops or ecclesiastical vestments as the more radical of the reformers wished.   Indeed as Elizabeth’s reign progressed, there was a growing intolerance towards both those who remained loyal to Catholicism, and those who entertained a Puritan approach.

During the 1570’s churches were required to do away with any old chalices dating from pre-reformation times, and replace them with communion cups. This reflected parishioners now being able to receive the wine as well as the bread at communion, which was not the pre-reformation practice.  Many churches simply melted down their old chalices and had them re-modelled.  There was a great demand for Goldsmiths to do this, and John Jones, a goldsmith and churchwarden at St Petrock’s was well placed to benefit from this.  He made a chalice for St Stephen’s hallmarked in 1574, which the Exeter Museum now keeps.

The growing intolerance is found expressed in The Act against Puritans of 1593 which declares: ‘that if any person above the age of sixteen years, which shall obstinately refuse to repair to some church, chapel, .. to hear divine service … or shall advisedly and maliciously move or persuade any other person to forbear or abstain from coming to church to hear divine service, or to receive the communion according to her majesty’s laws and statutes, or to come to or be present at any unlawful assemblies, conventicles, or meetings, under colour or pretence of any exercise of religion, contrary to her majesty’s said laws and statutes; …then every such person so offending and being thereof lawfully convicted, shall be committed to prison, there to remain without bail or mainprise, until they shall conform and yield themselves to come to some church… and hear divine service…and to make such open submission and declaration of their said conformity, as hereafter in this Act is declared and appointed.[xiii]

Repeated refusal to conform led to exile and also fines were levied on anyone who harboured such people in their houses.

Recusants were Catholics who also refused to attend church.  The threat of Spanish invasion and especially the Armada of 1588 made the whole country wary of foreign spies, and Catholics were seen as potential enemy agents.  The Act Against Recusants of 1593 gave a five mile curfew on Catholics and could lead to confiscation of land and possessions.

All of this makes the point that loyalty to the Crown and to the nation was very much tied into church attendance, and how churches played a significant role in maintaining public order.  One glimpse of this in Exeter is the involvement of St Stephen’s parishioners in contributing towards the ringing of the curfew bell.  An Act of the City Council in 1591 ‘Ordered that the parishes of St. Lawrence shall ring their great bell for a Curfew Bell in the morning and evening, and that they towards the same shall have and receive yearly  of the parishioners of St. Stephens’ 2s. 6d….(12½p)’[xiv]

So attending your parish church was the default position!  Now there were nineteen parishes in Exeter city at that time, and that seemed rather too many, so attempts were made during Elizabeth’s reign to reduce the number of parishes in Exeter.  This required an act of parliament naming the churches, and sometimes St Stephen’s was fingered and sometimes it wasn’t – as in this instance, the final attempt in Elizabeth’s reign, made in 1601

‘The Bill for uniting and consolidation of certain small Churches in the City of Exeter was read the second time and committed unto Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Darcie, Mr Solicitor, Mr Sergeant Heyle, Mr Secretary Harris, all the Doctors of the Civil Law and others, who were appointed to meet upon Monday next at two of the Clock in the Afternoon in the Middle-Temple Hall.[xv]’ 

The bill included the proposal to mark SS Petrock, George, Pancras, Kerrian, Mary Arches and Clare for destruction and replacement by new large church for 2000 people.  However the bill does not seem to have emerged from that meeting and the city of Exeter entered the seventeenth century and the reign of King James with all its churches intact.

St Stephens under the Stuarts

All seems quiet at St Stephens as the Stuart dynasty takes over the reins of monarchy.  James is courted both by puritans and catholics in the hope that he will ease the strictures that Elizabeth had placed upon them.  But James disappoints both groups.  The gunpowder plot of 1605 quickly closed down any hopes catholics had for a better deal, and the assertion of ‘no bishop: no king’ gave no encouragement to the puritan ideal.  Many started the process of leaving to set up new lives for themselves in the colonies of North America, to create communities according to their beliefs and values.  However the struggle between the various factions for James’s heart and mind did lead to the King commissioning a new translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1611, helped define the English language and has contributed numerous phrases to national consciousness.

The only specific evidence in St Stephens of James’ reign are the earliest surviving gravestones (ledgers) dated 1613 or 1615 which were uncovered when the floor was removed during the 2011 renovations.

We also know that in 1622 a Radford Maverick [xvi]was recorded in the Archdeacon’s visitation as curate of St Stephens.  He was also curate of All Hallows Goldsmith Street at the same time having previously been Rector of Trusham (1586 – 1616, and Vicar of Ilsington (1597 – 1621). He was ordained priest in 1583.  How much a maverick he was, we shall never know!

 Charles I

King James died in 1625 and was succeeded by Charles I.  Charles held strong views about the Divine Right of Kings and his autocratic practice soon led to conflict with parliament then to civil war, culminating with his execution in 1649.  At some point during his reign St Stephens acquired his Royal Coat of Arms which still hangs in the church today.

Exeter seems to have been a divided city between the royalist and parliamentarian causes, puritan and ‘anglican’ beliefs.  By 1640 it seems likely that about half the clergy in Exeter were royalist and half puritan.  According to Mark Stoyle[xvii] in 1643 St Stephens is reckoned as a royalist parish together with the Cathedral, St Martins and All Hallows Goldsmith Street.  In 1644 St Stephen’s appears to expel its Rector William Sclator for puritan beliefs.

 Civil War

At the start of the civil war Exeter declared for Parliament.  During the war the city suffered three sieges, and much misery including outbreaks of typhus.  The first siege by royalists from December 1642 to January 1643 ended in failure, and Exeter was reinforced by parliamentary troops.  However further royalist attacks during 1643 led to another siege starting in June, culminating in the surrender of the parliamentary forces in September.  The city was now in Royalist hands and Sir John Berkeley was appointed Governor of the city, with his headquarters in Bedford House, in St Stephen’s parish.

During 1644 King Charles must have felt the city was secure enough for his wife, Queen Henrietta to come here in order to give birth to their child and then continue into France.  The Princess Henrietta was born on June 16 1644, at Bedford House, and baptised in the Cathedral, not in St Stephens, but even so the only royal birth to take place in Exeter happened in this parish.

In 1645 the war started to collapse from the royalist point of view, with the south west the only part of the country still under the King’s control.  To make matters worse there was rivalry and mistrust between royalist leaders in Exeter and those of the King’s armies.  There was fierce fighting between royalists and parliamentarians throughout the area, with Exeter becoming increasingly isolated and unable to get food supplies.  The city eventually surrendered on April 9 1646, with none less than Oliver Cromwell riding in to take possession of the city for Parliament.  The whole civil war period must have been one of great trauma for the citizens of Exeter.

The ascendancy of the puritans and Parliament led to major changes being made to the church even though the King was notionally still in power.  As early as 1645 Parliament had prohibited the use of the Prayer Book for public and private worship, abolished the episcopacy in 1646 and Cathedral Deans and Chapters in 1649.  Many parliamentarians favoured a Presbyterian form of church organisation, but more radical elements especially those in the army favoured greater independence in worship.  The two groups became known as the Presbyterians and Independents.    Attempts were made to remove clergy who are unsympathetic to the puritan cause, but this was not easy partly because of local resistance and partly because of lack of others more suitable.  Gower [xviii] suggests that the majority of parishes conformed just sufficiently enough to allow a more or less consistent ministry.  Little is known however of what actually replaced the Prayer Book in terms of content of services.

In 1649 King Charles I is executed and the Commonwealth proclaimed.

The Commonwealth

One of the early Acts of the new regime was [xix]

9th April, 1650.

Resolved that the arms of the late King be taken down in all ships of and belonging to the Commonwealth; as also of all Merchants or others inhabiting within the same.  The arms to be taken down and defaced in all Churches, Chappels, and all other public places in England and Wales.’

But St Stephen’s royal coat of arms of Charles I survived and is mounted in the church today.  Someone was brave enough to take it down and hide it, and perhaps it was the same person who wrote ‘God save the King’ on the back of it – something that only was discovered in 2011 when the coat of arms was taken down during the rebuilding work.

Despite the problems, worship of some kind or other must have continued at St Stephens.  In 1655 the parish itself got an unexpected boost through The Countess of Pembroke’s gift.  The gift to the parish was four and a half acres of land close to St Anne’s chapel in St Sidwell’s parish[xx].  This gave an annual rental of £12 which was to be used to apprentice a poor boy or girl residing in the parish ‘in some honest trade or course of living’, on the recommendation of the minister and churchwardens.  There was sufficient left to give 2 shillings a year to the poor of the parish.  The gift was originally administered by a number of trustees, and was certainly still in existence and well used in 1907, but since then it appears to have been terminated.

However trouble was fast approaching.  Back in the reign of Elizabeth I attempts had been made to reduce the number of churches within the city.  The city now returned to this issue.  By reducing the number or churches they could reduce the number of ministers who are supported through taxes, and find money for a building project – a dividing wall in the cathedral.   More about that in a moment.

St Stephen’s is sold

This reduction required an Act of Parliament, and on 11 August, 1657 it was ordered[xxi]that the churchwardens respectively of Trinity, Mary Steps, Allhallow’s-on-the-Walls, John’s Bow, Olave’s, Kirrian’s, Pancras, George’s, Paul’s, Allhallow’s Goldsmith Street, Lawrence, Stephen’s and Martin’s, and every of them are Demanded that within four days after notice of this order to them … they bring in to the Rt Worshipful the Mayor of this City a true particular in writing of all the bells, goods, utensils, & implements whatsoever to the said respective churches belonging and appertaining. And also to give up to the said Mayor the possessions of the said respective churches by the delivery of the several keys of the doors of the same to him, that order may be further had and taken in the premises according to and in performance of an act of this present Parliament intituled an act for the promoting and more frequent preaching of the Gospel & maintenance of ministers in this City of Exeter and uniting of parishes and parish Churches.”

Under this ordinance the churchwardens had four days to make an inventory and hand over the keys of the churches to the mayor.  Only four churches escaped this requirement, namely St Mary Arches, St Mary Major, St Edmund’s and St Petrock’s, whose ministers were regarded as ‘sound’.

The closed churches were put up for sale.  This led to riots in the city and a compromise solution was arrived at whereby some congregations could purchase their churches provided they were only used for a burial place or a schoolhouse.   St Stephens however was specifically excluded and according to Cotton[xxii]: 11 May, 1658. A price of £230 was set on Stephen’s Church, with the cellar underneath, and Mr. Toby Allyn agreed to purchase. The Chamber to retain the bells, the lead, and the materials of the tower (which is to be taken down) as far as the roof.’

Toby or Tobias Allen or Alleyn was a serge merchant.  Tucker’s Hall records show he was admitted to the Guild of Weavers in 1653.  He was a member of the Independent Congregation worshipping in the cathedral, and must have lived near to both St Stephen’s and the cathedral, as his daughter, Dorcas, is recorded as being born in Cathedral Close on June 20 1654[xxiii].  The serge market was relocated to the Cathedral Cloisters in 1657[xxiv], and the church could have served as a store.  Other sources suggest he used the crypt area underneath the main floor as a stable.   A doorway on the Katherine Square side of the church, since blocked, but still visible would have been in existence at this time[xxv]  and may have led into the crypt area, and perhaps have been used by Toby, or perhaps it was just an entrance to a burial vault.

The Cathedral wall

Now let’s come back to the dividing wall in the cathedral. The two predominant religious parties in the Exeter were the Presbyterians (which included mainstream Anglicans) and the Independents who were more radical, puritanical and mainly were soldiers. Both parties wanted to hold their services in the Cathedral—”Peter’s church,” as they called it,—but one group wanted to sing hymns – something abhorred by the other, and as both wanted their service to take place at the same time, there was a problem!   So the City Council decided in August, 1657 to divide the Cathedral into two parts, by building a wall across the west end of the choir.   The two churches were named Peter the East, and Peter the West; the former to be set apart for the Independents, and the latter for the Presbyterians[xxvi][1].

Toby Allen and his wife Mary worshipped with the independents in St Peter’s East.  But Mary was quite independent herself.  She committed a major sin in the eyes of the Independent Minister, Lewis Stuckley – for which she was excommunicated.  Her sin – to listen to another preacher, together with another woman member, Susannah Parr.  Toby to his credit defended his wife, and there were exchanges of pamphlets between him, Stuckley and others over the issue – which are preserved in the Bodleian Library.  Stuckley the minister seemed to consider women parishioners were subject to his control, and the issue is an interesting example of sexual politics of the day.

But did Toby Allen actually buy St Stephen’s?  In 1908 Exeter council had to make a return to parliament about the charities in the city.  Its report is long and detailed and in the West Country Studies Library.  It states that in 1658, the Exeter Chamber (that is the City authorities) conveyed the churches of Allhallows on the Wall, St John’s Bow, Trinity, St Pancras, St George, St Stephen and St Martin to the governors of St John’s Hospital in Exeter for the sum of £650.  The report states: ‘The conveyances of the above mentioned premises to the hospital, still remain amongst the documents there.  We find in the Act Book and the accounts, traces of their having been in the possession of the governors till the Restoration, at which time they were probably given up to their former uses, though no minute appears of this transaction; and we apprehend, that the sums applied in these purchases were lost to the charity.’  

The records of St John’s Hospital which became the Bluecoat School were destroyed during the second world war, so there seems little means of verifying what actually happened.

Restoration of the Monarchy

We have to say that there is some uncertainty about who bought St Stephens, but whoever held the church nevertheless had to give it back to the parishioners, as with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, the new parliament declared that any legislation passed under the Commonwealth was invalid.  We cannot be sure what state the church was in when it was returned.  It is likely that the tower was at least partly demolished.  Nevertheless there is a gravestone in the church of Prudence Prouse who died and was buried in the vault under the church on April 14 1661.   Whatever was happening, clearly the services of the church were continuing.  It is generally acknowledged that rebuilding and restoration work started soon after the church was returned to the parishioners, but their efforts received a major setback when a serious fire broke out in 1662.  The archaeological evidence shows the seriousness of the fire.  An ash and charcoal layer was found at the base of the tower and near the main entrance, and the masonry evidence shows that most of the stonework above window sill level had to be rebuilt, with some walls having to be replaced to below ground level.  The external walls of the church from the 1662-4 rebuild are basically those we know today, but the church would have looked different as it was given a double gable roof, one over the nave and north aisle, which appears to have been combined, the other over the south aisle.

The financial impact of having to rebuild the church twice within a four year period must have been devastating for the congregation.  In true St Stephen’s tradition they did not lose heart and found a patron.  George Potter, a merchant and alderman of the city, gave £500 for its rebuilding – a substantial sum indeed[xxvii].  He also bequeathed a house in King’s Alley for the use of the incumbent.   He is remembered in the memorial on the South wall of the church towards the sanctuary end.

St Stephen’s had gone through so much turmoil in the ten years between 1655 and 1665, that it might have seemed that its doom was inevitable.  But that was not to be.  St Stephen’s survived and was a fully modern church ready to play its role once more in the life of the city.

The Nineteenth Century

Let’s move on through the Georgian period to 1826 (time of George IV) when a major re building took place.  Just before this the church was described as having a nave, an aisle (the south aisle), a chancel and a long gallery The roof line was changed to provide one gable roof, and new supporting columns were put in place.  The box pews installed in 1664 were taken out and new bench pews put in their place.  But rather than place them on top of the grave stones – ledger stones in the floor which date from 1617 onwards, they were taken up from their original places and re-laid around the pews in the aisles.  Some panels from the old box pews were salvaged and reused to make the panels around the walls which you can still see today.  However there are ledger stones going up to 1845 in the floor, so there were burials in the aisles for another twenty years after the rebuilding.  The work on the floor exposed the crypt – which was a great surprise to all.  A drawing was made. It is quite possible that the crypt was extensively explored at that time and cleared of many coffins.  Some lead coffins still survive in the burial vaults certainly those near the main door, so the clearance was not total.  The crypt was then filled in with a mix of soil and rubble.

The gallery survived this rebuilding being finally removed in 1895 having apparently not been used for many years.

The second world war and its aftermath

There were a number of minor changes and repairs after then, and the churches fortunes waxed and waned in the twentieth century.  Attempts to close the church were resisted by its congregation.  The great Air Raid on Exeter on May 3/4 1942 destroyed the High St and many other parts of the city.  St Stephens was hit too but the firemen were able to save the church at the expense of the surrounding buildings.  Even so fire affected the tower, causing the bells to fall to the ground and break, and the roof caught fire but was doused.  The church was patched up, and provided a home for congregations from St Lawrence and Bedford Chapel whose churches had been destroyed.  Although we didn’t know it, the great timber roof beams were smouldering very gently during this period.  In 1972 George Willis, the Rector believed that for St Stephens to survive, it must be made more multi-functional and to do that meant creating a more flexible space.  The pews were taken out, a new floor laid, the Bow area closed off and made into a room, accessed by a new small set of stairs.  The old stairs are removed and a new east end was created, which was soon decorated with Bobby Cox’s tapestry ‘Pieces of Light’.

Each church has to have an architect’s survey every five years.  The survey of 2001 reported that the roof needed replacing at a cost of some £77,000.  We formed a group to work out how to raise funds.  It was suggested that church roofs weren’t very sexy, and perhaps we should think about doing something inside the church too.  Nine years and £1.5 million pounds later, the church stands as you see it today.



[i]  Beatrix Cresswell: ‘The Edwardian Inventories for the City and County of Exeter’ page 83.

[ii] Beatrix Cresswell: ‘The Edwardian Inventories for the City and County of Exeter’ page ix

[iii] Beatrix Cresswell: ‘The Edwardian Inventories for the City and County of Exeter’ page xiii.

[iv]  ‘The city of Exeter: Inventories of church goods’, Report on the Records of the City of Exeter (1916), pp. 260-263.

[v] St Olave

[vi] Beatrix Cresswell: ‘The Edwardian Inventories for the City and County of Exeter’ page 82.

[vii] Beatrix Cresswell: ‘The Edwardian Inventories for the City and County of Exeter’ page xv

[viii]  Beatrix Cresswell: ‘The Edwardian Inventories for the City and County of Exeter’ page 84.

[ix] Person ID 96775

[x] CCEd record 85633

[xi]  v Elizabeth’s Supremacy Act, Restoring Ancient  Jurisdiction (1559),
1 Elizabeth, Cap. 1 on

[xii] Act of Uniformity 1 Eliz cap 2 on

[xiii] The Act Against Puritans 1593  35 Eliz cap 1  on

[xiv] ‘The city of Exeter: Act Books of the Chamber’, Report on the Records of the City of Exeter (1916), pp. 302-339.

[xv] From: ‘Journal of the House of Commons: November 1601’, The Journals of all the Parliaments during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1682), pp. 622-660.

[xvi] CCEd person 99235

[xvii] Mark Stoyle,  Loyality and Locality

[xviii] Ian Gower Clergy in Devon 1641-1662 in Tudor and Stuart Devon, Ed. Gray, Rowe and Erskine, 1992

[xix] Gleanings from the Municipal and Cathedral Records relative to the history of the City of Exeter  W Cotton and H Woollcombe  Exeter 1877  p205.

[xx] Endowed Charities.  Return of the County Borough of Exeter to the House of Commons, 1907

[xxi]Gleanings from the Municipal and Cathedral Records relative to the history of the City of Exeter  W Cotton and H Woollcombe Exeter 1877  p169.

[xxii] Gleanings from the Municipal and Cathedral Records relative to the history of the City of Exeter  W Cotton and H Woollcombe  Exeter 1877  p175-177

[xxiii] Exeter Cathedral records on

[xxiv] Gleanings from the Municipal and Cathedral Records relative to the history of the City of Exeter  W Cotton and H Woollcombe  Exeter 1877  p175-177

[xxv] Report on Archaeological Fabric Recording and Excavation during  reordering works at St Stephen’s church, 2011-12

[xxvii]The ancient history and description of the City of Exeter, compiled from the works of Hooker, Izacke, and others (1780’s)’ p203